Category Archives: D. A. Carson

January 18 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 19; Matthew 18; Nehemiah 8; Acts 18

 

something is to be gained by bringing today’s two readings, Nehemiah 8 and Acts 18, into juxtaposition.

Much of Acts 18 is devoted to preaching and teaching the Word of God and to the issue of how to understand God’s revelation aright. When Silas and Timothy arrive in Corinth from Macedonia (18:5), presumably bringing with them some support money, Paul is set free to devote himself “exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (18:5). Eventually the heat of opposition drives him to spend more time with Gentiles. No longer free to use the synagogue, he uses the house of Titius Justus next door. Soon the synagogue ruler himself is converted (18:8). Some Jews mount a legal challenge against Paul, but the local magistrate perceives that the dispute essentially involves controverted interpretations of Scripture (18:12–16). The end of the chapter introduces Apollos, learned in the Scriptures and a powerful speaker, but still somewhat ill-informed regarding Jesus. He “knew only the baptism of John” (18:25). He may well have known enough of John the Baptist’s teaching to announce the coming of Jesus and perhaps even details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; but like the “believers” at the beginning of the next chapter, he might not have known of Pentecost and the gift of the Spirit. After all, many Jews from around the empire visited Jerusalem at the time of the feasts and then returned home. If Apollos and others had left Jerusalem after the resurrection but before Pentecost, it was not impossible that years could have elapsed before they became better informed. And information is precisely what Priscilla and Aquila provide Apollos, explaining to him “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26).

In Nehemiah 8, Ezra begins a seven-day Bible conference. He carefully reads “the Law” to the assembled crowd. The Levites join in; they “instructed the people in the Law.… They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (8:7–8). The expression “making it clear” could be rendered “translating it”; after all, the Law was written in Hebrew, and by this time most of the people spoke Aramaic. The Bible had become a closed book to them. Whether through translation or exposition or both, the people are understanding it again. Joy dawns “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (8:12).

Whether under the old covenant or the new, nothing is more important for the growth and maturation of God’s people than a heart hungry to read and understand what God says, and people to make it plain.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 18 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 19; Matthew 18; Nehemiah 8; Acts 18

 

if a person isn’t careful, it is fairly easy to distort an analogy. The reason is obvious. When one thing is an analogy of another, inevitably there are points where the two things are parallel, and other points where they are quite different. If they were parallel at every point, then their relationship would not be analogical: the two would instead be identical. What makes an analogical relationship so fruitful and insightful lies precisely in the fact that the two things are not identical. But that is also what sometimes makes them a little tricky to understand.

This point is critical to the understanding of the analogy Jesus draws in Matthew 18:1–6. When his disciples begin to argue over who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus calls a little child and insists that unless they “change and become like little children” they will “never enter the kingdom of heaven” (18:3). Indeed, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:4). To welcome a little child in Jesus’ name is to welcome Jesus (18:5); to cause one of these little ones who believe in Jesus to sin is to commit so grievous an offense it would be better never to have been born (18:6).

It is important to notice what the analogy does not establish. There is no suggestion that children are innocent or sinless, no hint that their faith is intrinsically pure, no sentimental illusion that children have a better understanding of God than do adults. The primary point of the analogy is established by the context of the disciples’ argument. While they fret over who is greatest in the kingdom, Jesus is at pains to draw attention to members of society whom no one would think great. Children are such dependent creatures. They are not strong, wise, or sophisticated. They are relatively transparent. Proud adults, then, must humble themselves so that they may approach God as do little children: simply, in unselfconscious dependence, without any hope of being the greatest in the kingdom.

Moreover, if such children trust Jesus—doubtless without much sophistication, but with a transparent simplicity—those who corrupt them and lead them astray are pathetically and profoundly evil.

Here, then, is an image of greatness in the kingdom that shatters our pretensions, abases our pride, shames our selfish aspirations. If we must not draw the wrong conclusions from this analogy, there are plenty of correct ones to think through and put into practice.

Those who aspire to ecclesiastical heights and great reputations need to reflect at length on these words: “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 17 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 18; Matthew 17; Nehemiah 7; Acts 17

 

when a large building project is finished, or when an important goal has been reached, often there is a tendency to slack off. Many a congregation has devoted considerable energy to building a new facility, only to retreat into lethargy for months or even years afterward.

Nehemiah perceives that the building of the wall is not the climax of the return, after which relaxation should be the order of the day. The rest of the book makes this point clearly enough. The rebuilding of the wall is scarcely more than preparation for a number of more far-reaching political and religious reforms. In ministry, it is vital always to distinguish means and ends.

With the wall finished, Nehemiah stays on for a while as governor of the entire region of Judah, but appoints two men to be in charge of Jerusalem—his brother Hanani (apparently a man he could trust), and a military man, Hananiah, chosen “because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do” (Neh. 7:2—compare meditation for January 6). There is something refreshing and fundamental about such leaders. They are not sycophants or mercenaries; they are not trying to “find themselves” or prove their manhood; they are not scrambling up the mobile ladder to success. They are men of integrity, who fear God more than most.

Nehemiah then gives instructions regarding the opening and closing of the gates—instructions designed to avoid any traps set between the dangerous hours of dusk and dawn (7:3). Thus the administration and defense of Jerusalem are settled.

The sheer emptiness of the city is what now confronts Nehemiah (7:4). The walls have been rebuilt more or less along their original lines. Jerusalem is a substantial city, and yet the vast majority of the returned Jews are living in the countryside. What takes place in the following chapters, then, is something that can only be called a revival, followed by the determination of the people to send one-tenth of their number into Jerusalem to become the fledgling kernel of a new generation of Jerusalemites. As a first step, Nehemiah digs out the now aging records of those exiles who had first returned from exile in order to determine whose genealogical records demonstrated them to be part of the covenant people, and especially those who could legitimately serve as priests. The steps Nehemiah pursues seem to be part of a careful plan, one which, as Nehemiah himself insists, “my God put … into my heart” (7:5).[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 17 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 18; Matthew 17; Nehemiah 7; Acts 17

 

one of the great failures into which even believers sometimes fall is the tendency to underestimate Jesus (Matt. 17:1–8).

Jesus takes the inner three of his twelve disciples—Peter, James, and John—to a high mountain, just the four of them. “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (17:2). Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared, “talking with Jesus” (17:3). It is as if the ultimate identity of the eternal Son is allowed to peep through; the three disciples become “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). It is hard not to see here also a foretaste of the glory of the exalted Son (cf. Rev. 1:12–16), of the Jesus before whom every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, every tongue confessing “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).

But Peter misunderstands. He rightly recognizes that it is an enormous privilege to be present on this occasion: “Lord,” he says, “it is good for us to be here” (17:4). Then he puts his foot in his mouth: “If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He entirely misunderstands the significance of the presence of Moses and Elijah. He thinks that Jesus is being elevated to their great stature, the stature of the mediator of the Sinai covenant and of the first of the great biblical prophets.

He is utterly mistaken. Their presence signified, rather, that the law and the prophets bore witness to him (cf. 5:17–18; 11:13). God himself sets the record straight. In a terrifying display, God thunders from an enveloping cloud, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (17:5). By the time the three disciples recover from their prostrate terror, it is all over: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (17:8)—a pregnant conclusion to the account.

Jesus brooks no rivals. There have been, there are, many religious leaders. In an age of postmodern sensibilities and a deep cultural commitment to philosophical pluralism, it is desperately easy to relativize Jesus in countless ways. But there is only one Person of whom it can be said that he made us, and then became one of us; that he is the Lord of glory, and a human being; that he died in ignominy and shame on the odious cross, yet is now seated on the right hand of the Majesty on high, having returned to the glory he shared with the Father before the world began.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 16 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 17; Matthew 16; Nehemiah 6; Acts 16

 

it is common for great enterprises of faith to be surrounded by extremely difficult relationships.

William Carey, the father of modern Protestant missions, may be a hero to us, but in his own day he was viewed as eccentric and had more than his share of personal and familial sorrow. The great magisterial reformers did not battle for mere ideas; they were enmeshed in a great controversy that included not only “enemies” but countless people who were “friends” in some arenas and foes in others. In any great controversy there is bound to be a spectrum of viewpoints and a considerable diversity of degrees of integrity. One cannot read a detailed and candid biography of any Christian leader without observing the kinds and frequency of the difficult, painful, and sometimes deceptive debates in which they were called to participate. Consider, for example, Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield or Iain Murray’s D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I cannot think of an exception.

Where sufficient information is provided, the same thing must be said regarding leaders of the faith whose cameos appear in Scripture. Despite the long list of physical sufferings inflicted on him by unbelievers and by his calling as a church-planting apostle (2 Cor. 11), doubtless Paul’s most anguished moments come to him from closer to home—from Christians behaving in sub-Christian ways, from false brothers and false apostles undermining his work with innuendo and half-truths.

These are the kinds of things Nehemiah now faces (Neh. 6). Failing to succeed by ridicule, threat, and direct opposition, Sanballat, Tobiah, and their colleagues embark on subterfuge and personal pressure. In this chapter there are lies, false prophets, and accusations of rebellion. Indeed, even some of the Jews, Nehemiah’s own people, owe allegiance through political and marriage alliances to Tobiah, and use their compromised positions to try to influence the governor away from a policy that is good for the Jews and honoring to God. In all these machinations, Nehemiah steers a straight course, asks God for help, and shows himself to be a discerning and far-seeing leader.

Similar problems assail genuine Christian leaders today, and similar quiet resolve and fearless discernment are required to meet them. This is certainly true in pastoral ministry. The most difficult challenges will erupt not from direct opposition or from problems with a building or the like, but from deceivers, liars, those committed to some other agenda but whose smooth talk is so superficially “spiritual” that many are deceived. Expect such difficulties; they will surely come. It is the price of godly leadership in a fallen world.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 16 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 17; Matthew 16; Nehemiah 6; Acts 16

 

we are not to think that God disclosed himself to Abram every day: the decisive moments take place over considerable time. Putting the chronological hints together, Genesis 12 occurs when Abram is seventy-five; Genesis 15 is undated, but occurs during the following decade. Now he is ninety-nine, and Ishmael is already thirteen (Gen. 17:1, 25). God’s opening words on this occasion must have been a great comfort, pulling together as they do some of the themes already introduced: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers” (17:1–2).

In the following verses, there is initial emphasis on the covenant, on the promise of the land, and on the fact that Abram will be “the father of many nations” (17:4–5). The latter takes pride of place, but there are three new elements that carry the history of redemption forward.

First, both Abram and Sarai are given new names. If Abram means “exalted father,” Abraham means “father of many,” i.e., “the father of many nations,” which implicitly announces that however important his role as head of the fledgling Hebrew nation, Abraham will be greater still in his foundational role as the one through whom all the peoples on the earth will be blessed (12:3). Sarah “will be the mother of nations” (17:16).

Second, God introduces circumcision as the initiatory sign of the covenant. Circumcision was practiced by several ancient Near Eastern peoples. Here, however, it has a distinctive role: a rite that is not unknown in Abraham’s world is picked up by God and assigned distinctive significance in the history of the covenant God enters into with his people. Abraham loses no time in complying (17:23–27). This is a social “boundary marker” which across the course of history increasingly marks the Hebrews out as different; but it is more than that. It is so definitively established as the unique sign of the everlasting covenant that failure to comply means one is cut off from the people of God (17:13–14). Even before there is a great quantity of stipulation in the covenant, its framework, its boundary, and its symbolism are being established.

Third, Abraham’s understandable but unhappy skepticism that he will bring forth a son of Sarah at this late stage in their marriage leads him to propose Ishmael as the one through whom God will fulfill his promises (17:17–18). But God will have none of it. Ishmael will sire great numbers, but the covenant line goes through Isaac (17:19–21). The history of the covenant people is thus decisively shaped by God’s sovereign choice.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 15 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 16; Matthew 15; Nehemiah 5; Acts 15

 

when I was a high school student in canada, I heard a story told by our history teacher. He related it with deadly anger. He had just returned from the battle-fields of World War II, where he had seen many of his friends killed. Furloughed home because of a war wound, he was riding a bus in a major Canadian city. Seated behind two prosperous-looking women, he overheard one of them say to the other, “I hope this war doesn’t end soon. We’ve never had it so good.”

There are almost always people who profit from the disasters of others, not least from war. So it was in Nehemiah’s day (Neh. 5). Even while there was a disciplined effort to rebuild the city, in the surrounding countryside the fiscal pressures of the times, coupled with famine conditions, made the rich richer and the poor poorer. In an effort to keep going, the poor mortgaged their land and then lost it; they sold themselves or their families into slavery. From Nehemiah’s perspective, slavery was slavery; to be a slave to a fellow Jew was still to be a slave. In some ways it was worse: Nehemiah was concerned not only with the slavery itself, but with the moral hardness of the rich who were profiting from the bankruptcy of others—the want of compassion, the failure to obey the Mosaic code that forbade usury, the sheer covetousness and greed. Transparently they did not need more. Nor was this a question of buying off the lazy. What conceivable justification could they offer for such profiteering?

Yet, mercifully, the consciences of these rich people were tender enough that they did not rebel when they were rebuked. “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say” (5:8). Indeed, in due course they repented, returned what had been taken, and stopped charging interest to their brothers.

Clearly one of the factors that enhanced Nehemiah’s credibility as he labored to bring about these reforms was his own conduct. Doubtless the vast majority of governors at the time used their positions of power to accumulate considerable wealth for themselves. Nehemiah refused to do so. He received, presumably from the central treasury, an ample stipend and sufficient support for himself and his staff, and he therefore declined to use his power to demand additional material support from the local population. Indeed, he ended up supporting many of them (5:14–18).

Obedience to God, compassion toward one’s fellows, consistency in the leadership, covenantal faithfulness that extends to one’s pocketbook, repentance and restoration where there has been either corruption or rapacity—these were values more important than the building of the wall. If the wall had been rebuilt without rebuilding the people, the triumph would have been small.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 15 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 16; Matthew 15; Nehemiah 5; Acts 15

 

in all of ancient near eastern literature, so far as I am aware, Hagar is the only woman whom Deity directly addresses by name (Gen. 16:8; 21:17). The woman in question is not one of the great matriarchs of the Old Testament—Sarah, perhaps, or Rachel, or Rebekah—but a slave who resents her mistress and flees. Yet God addresses her, tells her to submit to Sarai (16:9), promises that the child she is carrying in her womb will be a son, and later tells her that that son will be the progenitor of a great nation (21:18).

The account has many interwoven layers to think about. Placed after God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, this incident reflects well on neither Abram nor Sarai. Desperate for children, they think they have the right to bring God’s purposes—and their own desires!—to pass by legal but shady means. The result is not only tension in their household for years to come—tension that spills over into the next generation (Gen. 21, 25), but the beginnings of the Arab peoples, who frequently find themselves locked in hostility with Israel to this day. One of the great features of the Bible is its sheer honesty: great men and women are portrayed with all their warts. This remains a broken world, and the very best are fallen. This should warn us against untamed hero-worship.

Yet there is another connection with the previous chapters. God had promised Abram that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him (12:3). The election of Abram is a means to that end. However focused on Abram’s offspring his purposes will be, God remains the sovereign Lord of all. In the book of Genesis, the account of Abram is nestled into the broader account of the creation of all, and the Fall of all. And so here, at the very beginning of the history of the nation of Israel, God displays his concern for the despised and the outcast, people who are not organically connected with the promised line.

We may detect the same concern in the Lord Jesus. In Matthew 15:21–28, Jesus well knows that during the days of his flesh his mission is in the first instance directed to “the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24). There is a redemptive-historical primacy to the ancient covenant people of God. But this does not prevent him from acknowledging the remarkable faith of yet another woman, a Canaanite, who wisely changes her plea. She no longer addresses Christ as “Son of David” (15:22), on whom she can make no direct claim, and simply pleads for mercy (15:27). Another “Hagar” finds that mercy abundant, as countless people do today.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 14 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 15; Matthew 14; Nehemiah 4; Acts 14

 

the drama of nehemiah 4 abounds with lessons and illustrations of various truths. But we must not forget that what to us is a dramatic narrative was to those experiencing it days of brutally hard work, high tension, genuine fear, insecurity, rising faith, dirt and grime. Nevertheless, some lessons transcend the ages:

(1) Among the hardest things to endure is derisory contempt. That is what Nehemiah and the Jews faced from Sanballat, Tobiah, and the rest (4:1–3). The Judeo-Christian heritage of Western nations was until recent decades so strong that many Christians were shielded from such scorn. No more. We had better get used to what our brothers and sisters in Christ in other lands and centuries handle better than we.

(2) Although God sometimes works through spectacular and supernatural means, he commonly works through ordinary people who take responsibility for themselves and seek to act faithfully even in difficult circumstances. So the Jews “prayed to [their] God and posted a guard day and night” (4:9). They armed themselves and divided their number between fighters and builders, but were also exhorted to, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for … your homes” (4:14). Jews living near the enemy heard of the plots to demolish the building project and reported it to Nehemiah, who took appropriate action—but God gets the credit for frustrating the plot (4:15).

(3) Practical implications flow from this outlook. (a) It presupposes a God-centered outlook that avoids naturalism. If God is God, if he has graciously made himself known in the great moments of redemptive history and in visions and words faithfully transmitted by prophets he has raised up, why should we not also think of this God as operating in the so-called “natural” course of events? Otherwise we have retreated to some myopic vision in which God works only in the spectacular and the miraculous, but otherwise is absent or asleep or uncaring. The God described in the Bible is never so small or distant. (b) That is why God can be trusted. Nehemiah is not resorting to mere psychological puffery, nor to shameless religious rhetoric. His faith is properly grounded in the God who is always active and who is working out his redemptive-historical purposes in the ending of the exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem—just as today our faith is properly grounded in the God who is always active and who is working out his redemptive-historical purposes in the calling and transformation of the elect and the building and purifying of his church.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 14 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 15; Matthew 14; Nehemiah 4; Acts 14

 

god’s time scale is so different from ours. Abram wants a son, and feels his time is running out; God envisages a race with countless millions of descendants. Abram feels his life is approaching its termination with nothing very much settled as to God’s purpose in calling him out of Ur of the Chaldeans; God sees the entire course of redemptive history.

What God does in Genesis 15 is promise Abraham that his offspring will constitute a vast number. At one level, God’s promise is enough: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abram’s faith is simple and profound: he believed God’s promises, taking God at his word. And that faith, in God’s eyes, was credited as righteousness. This does not mean that Abram earned brownie points for deploying such a righteous faith. Rather, the idea is that what God demands of his image-bearers, what he has always demanded, is righteousness—but in this sinful race what he accepts, crediting it as righteousness, is faith, faith that acknowledges our dependence upon God and takes God at his word. This faith of Abram is what makes him the “father” of those who believe (Rom. 4; Gal. 3).

Yet however genuine this faith, some of the details of God’s promise Abram has trouble imagining. God tells him of a time when his descendants will possess all the land around him, and Abram wavers and asks for a sign (Gen. 15:8). Graciously, God provides one: in a vision, Abram is enabled to see God entering into a covenant with him. Probably the pieces of the animals between which “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch” (Gen. 15:17) passes represent a way of saying, “May those who enter into this covenant similarly be torn apart if they break the terms of this covenant.” What is a visionary act of kindness to anchor Abram’s faith is also an instance of God’s long-range plans, his vast frame of reference: he is establishing his covenant with Abram and his offspring, a covenant relation into which Christians enter today (Gal. 3:6–9).

There is one more strand in this chapter that depicts God’s long-term view of things. One reason why Abram cannot begin to take over the Promised Land immediately is that “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16). God’s sovereign timing so matches his moral sensibilities that by the time the children of Abraham are ready to take over the Promised Land, the inhabitants of that land will have so sunk in degradation that judgment must be meted out. That time, God says, is coming, but in this chapter it has not yet arrived.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 13 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 14; Matthew 13; Nehemiah 3; Acts 13

 

if one were to read through the book of Genesis without knowing the content of any other book of the Bible, one of the most enigmatic sections would certainly be these few verses about Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18–20). After all, how does he contribute in any substantial way to the plotline of the book?

His presence is precipitated by the decision (recorded in Gen. 13) of Abram and Lot to separate in order to stop the wrangling that was breaking out between their respective herdsmen. Lot opts for the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah. That means he and his family and wealth are taken captive when Kedorlaomer and the petty kings aligned with him attack the twin towns and escape with considerable plunder. Abram and his sizable number of fighting men go after the attackers. The skirmish ends in the release of Lot and his family, and the restoration of the people and goods that had been carried off. In the verses that follow, Abram refuses to accept any reward from the king of Sodom, a city already proverbial for wickedness, but he gladly accepts the blessing of the king of Salem (which possibly equals Jerusalem?) and in return pays him an honorific tithe.

Historically, Melchizedek (his name means “king of righteousness”) appears to be the king of the city-state of Salem (a name meaning “peace” or “well-being”). He functions not only as Salem’s king, but as “priest of God Most High” (14:18). Indeed, it is in the name of God Most High that he blesses Abram. And Abram so respects him, apparently knowing him from previous dealings, that he honors him in return.

We need not think that Abram was the only person on earth who retained knowledge of the living God. Melchizedek was another, and Abram finds in him a kindred spirit. In a book that provides the exact genealogy of virtually everyone who is important to the storyline, rather strikingly Melchizedek simply appears and disappears—we are told neither who his parents were nor when and how he died. He and his city are a foil to Sodom and its king. Once again, there are two cities: the city of God and the city of man (as Augustine would label them).

Melchizedek is mentioned in only two other places in the Bible. The first is Psalm 110 (see meditation for June 17); the other is Hebrews, where the writer recognizes that the inclusion of Melchizedek in the plotline of Genesis is no accident, but a symbol-laden event with extraordinary significance (especially Heb. 7). God is preparing the way for the ultimate priest-king, not only in verbal prophecies but in models (or types) that provide the categories and shape the expectations of the people of God.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 12 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 13; Matthew 12; Nehemiah 2; Acts 12

 

it is worth comparing the two italicized passages (Neh. 2; Acts 12:1–19).

The same God is behind both situations, of course. In both situations, a lone servant of God faces the challenge of building up and strengthening God’s people in the teeth of opposition from some pretty hostile customers. Both men are in danger, in part for political reasons, though Peter’s danger is the more immediate. Both are unflinching in their loyalty to the living God and to the mission to which each is called.

Thereafter the stories diverge. Having won the ear of the emperor, Nehemiah finds himself on the imperial frontier. He has a certain paper authority, but the locals are set on giving him a hard time. He proceeds step by step, wisely, winning the support of the local Jewish leaders, securing the supplies needed for building the wall, dismissing the opponents and all their wiles. For Nehemiah there are no miracles, no mighty displays of power, no angels in the night. There is only a great deal of risky and courageous work.

By contrast, Peter’s situation is much more restricted. He has been arrested and is in prison awaiting execution. Since James has already been killed, Peter has no reason to think he will escape the executioner’s sword. In a strange apparition that he mistakes for a dream, Peter is rescued by an angel; the chains fall away from him, the doors open of their own accord. Finding himself outside the prison walls, Peter comes to his senses and presents himself at the home of John Mark’s mother, where people have gathered to pray for him. Eventually he secures entrance, and in due course leaves for “another place” (12:17). In Peter’s case, to escape death is a triumph, and the faith of the church has been strengthened by what has happened. And it all happened because of a miraculous display of angelic help.

The lesson of these radically different experiences is one that we must learn again and again: God’s servants do not have the same gifts, the same tasks, the same success, or the same degree of divine intervention. It is partly a matter of gifts and calling; it is partly a matter of where we fit into God’s unfolding redemptive purposes. Has he placed us in times of declension, for example, or of revival; of persecution, or of major advance? Let God be God; let all his servants be faithful.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 12 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 13; Matthew 12; Nehemiah 2; Acts 12

 

the picture is a lovely one. Jesus is so tender and gentle that when he finds a “bruised reed” (Matt. 12:20), instead of snapping it off thoughtlessly, he binds it up in the hope that it will rejuvenate itself. If the wick of a candle has been reduced to a smoldering ember, instead of snuffing it out—thereby extinguishing it completely—Jesus fans it back into flame. He will act this way, we are told, “till he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope” (12:20–21).

The words are drawn from Isaiah 42:1–4, one of the “Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah. Many people expected a Messiah who would come with decisive and irresistible power and bring justice to the earth, or at least to Israel. But it appears unlikely that many people linked the coming King with Isaiah’s promised servant. That is why the notion of a kingdom that dawned in the context of meekness and blessing, and restrained in the matter of climactic judgment, was so unexpected. Yet here was Jesus, healing the sick among the people—and then warning them not to tell people who he was (12:15–16). Small wonder Matthew sees in such conduct a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s lovely words.

Even the surrounding verses betray something of the same theme. While Jesus is healing someone on the Sabbath, his opponents try to kill him for ostensibly breaking the Sabbath (12:9–14); while Jesus casts out demons from a poor victim, his opponents are ready to write Jesus off as the devil himself (12:22–28). Their very harshness, in the name of an alleged orthodoxy, contrasts sharply with his gentleness.

In addition to the great christological implications, this passage discloses something of the nature of the kingdom into which Christians have been drawn, and therefore of the conduct that is demanded of us. On the one hand, as Matthew has made clear in the previous chapter, Jesus’ witnesses are called to a holy and courageous boldness, a firm fidelity to the Gospel that is willing to endure ostracism and even persecution. But we are not to display the kind of “strength” that is hard and harsh, the kind of uprightness that is angry and condescending, the kind of courage that is merely ruthless, the kind of witness that rants and manipulates. We follow the Lord Jesus, who tells his followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). That means that we too, while we proclaim “justice to the nations” (12:18), resolve not to quarrel or cry out, clanging cymbals in the streets.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 11 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 12; Matthew 11; Nehemiah 1; Acts 11

 

in the complex history of the postexilic community in Judah, Nehemiah plays a singular role. He was not part of the original party that returned to Judah, but before long he was sent there by the emperor himself. In two separate expeditions, Nehemiah served as de facto governor of the remnant community and was largely responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, not to mention other reforms. His work overlapped that of Ezra.

The book of Nehemiah is often treated as a manual on godly leadership. I wonder if this does justice to the book. Did Nehemiah intend to write a manual on leadership? Is the book included in the canon for that purpose—as if we turn, say, to Acts to discover the history of the early church and to Nehemiah to discover the principles of leadership?

This is not to say that there is nothing about leadership to be learned from Nehemiah—or, for that matter, from Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. Yet a reading of this book that focuses on the theme of leadership is bound to be skewed; it is in line neither with authorial intent nor with canonical priorities.

Nehemiah is a book about God’s faithfulness and about the agents God used in reestablishing his covenant people in the Promised Land at the end of the exile—about the first steps taken to secure their protection and identity as God’s people and to assure their covenantal faithfulness. Canonically, this part of the Bible’s story-line establishes chunks of postexilic history that take us on to the Lord Jesus himself.

But perhaps we can profitably focus on one or two elements of Nehemiah 1, trailing on to Nehemiah 2.

Early reports of the sorry condition of the returned remnant community in Judah (1:3) elicit from Nehemiah profound grief and fervent intercession (1:4). The substance of his prayer occupies most of the first chapter (1:5–11). Nehemiah addresses the “great and awesome God” in terms of the covenant. God had promised to send his people into exile if they were persistent in their disobedience; but he had also promised, if they repented and returned to him, to gather them again to the place he had chosen as a dwelling for his name (1:8–9; see Deut. 30:4–5). Yet Nehemiah is not praying for others while avoiding any role for himself. He prays that he might find favor in the eyes of the emperor, whom he serves as cupbearer (1:11), when he approaches him about this great burden. Even Nehemiah’s “bullet prayer” in the next chapter (2:4) is the outcropping of sustained intercessory prayer in secret.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 11 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 12; Matthew 11; Nehemiah 1; Acts 11

 

this passage, Genesis 12, marks a turning point in God’s unfolding plan of redemption. From now on, the focus of God’s dealings is not scattered individuals, but a race, a nation. This is the turning point that makes the Old Testament documents so profoundly Jewish. And ultimately, out of this race come law, priests, wisdom, patterns of relationships between God and his covenant people, oracles, prophecies, laments, psalms—a rich array of institutions and texts that point forward, in ways that become increasingly clear, to a new covenant foretold by Israel’s prophets.

Even in this initial covenant with Abram, God includes a promise that already expands the horizons beyond Israel, a promise that repeatedly surfaces in the Bible. God tells Abraham, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (12:3). Lest we miss its importance, the book of Genesis repeats it (18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). A millennium later, the same promise is refocused not on the nation as a whole, but on one of Israel’s great kings: “May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Ps. 72:17). The “evangelical prophet” often articulates the same breadth of vision (e.g., Isa. 19:23–25). The earliest preaching in the church, after the resurrection of Jesus, understood that the salvation Jesus had introduced was a fulfillment of this promise to Abraham (Acts 3:25). The apostle Paul makes the same connection (Gal. 3:8).

Even when the passage in Genesis is not explicitly cited, the same stance—that God’s ultimate intentions were from the beginning to bring men and women from every race into the new humanity he was forming—surfaces in a hundred ways. In fact, quite apart from this passage, two of the three remaining passages in today’s readings point in the same direction. In Matthew 11:20–24, Jesus makes it clear, in disturbing language, that on the last day pagan cities, though punished, may be punished less severely than the cities of Israel who enjoyed the unfathomable privilege of hearing Jesus for themselves, and seeing his miracles, but who made nothing of it. His own invitation is broad: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). And in Acts 11, Peter recounts his experiences with Cornelius and his household to the church in Jerusalem, leading them to conclude, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).

Christ receives the unrestrained praise of heaven, because with his blood he purchased people for God “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9; see meditation for December 15).[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 10 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 11; Matthew 10; Ezra 10; Acts 10

 

broadly speaking, ezra 10 is understood in two different ways:

According to the first view, what takes place is something akin to revival. Ezra’s tears and prayer prove so moving that the leaders of the community, though they too have been compromised by these intermarriages, enter into a pact to divorce their pagan wives and send them home to their own people, along with whatever children have sprung up from these marriages. Those who disagree with this decision will be expelled from the assembly of the exiles (10:8), henceforth to be treated like foreigners themselves. The appropriate councils are set up, and the work is discharged. This is remarkably courageous, a sure sign of God’s blessing, ringing evidence that these people love God even more than they love their own families. The purity of the postexilic community is maintained, and the wrath of God is averted. The lesson, then, is that one must deal radically with sin.

According to the second view, although Ezra’s prayer (Ezra 9) is exactly right, the steps that flow from it are virtually all wrong. Marriage, after all, is a creation ordinance. In any case, one cannot simply undo a marriage; if the Law prohibits marriage with a pagan, it also prohibits easy divorce. What about all those children? Are they to be banished to their pagan grandparents, without any access to the covenant community and the one God of all the earth—quite apart from the psychological damage that doubtless will befall them? Could not other steps be taken instead? For example, all further mixed marriages could be proscribed and rigorously prevented, under the sanction of being expelled from the assembly. Priests who have intermarried could be stripped of priestly rights and duties. The kind of widespread repentance that is evident could be channeled toward faithful study of the Law, not least by these mixed families. What sanction is there for so inhumane an action as that in this chapter?

Strictly speaking, the text itself does not adjudicate between these two interpretations, though the first of the two is slightly more natural within the stance of the book. But is it more natural within the stance of the entire canon or of the Old Testament canon?

Without meaning to avoid the issue, I suspect that in large measure both views are correct. There is something noble and courageous about the action taken; there is also something heartless and reductionistic. One suspects that this is one of those mixed results in which the Bible frankly abounds, like the account of Gideon, or of Jephthah, or of Samson. Some sins have such complex tentacles that it is not surprising if solutions undertaken by repentant sinners are messy as well.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 10 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 11; Matthew 10; Ezra 10; Acts 10

 

moved by compassion when the crowds remind him of sheep without a shepherd, Jesus instructs his disciples, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:38)—and then he organizes a trainee mission for the twelve who constitute his inner circle (Matt. 10). There are many wonderful things to learn from this chapter, which, judging by the language (e.g., 10:18), Jesus takes to be a kind of forerunner of a lifelong mission. Here I must focus on just one element.

That element is the degree of conflict that Jesus anticipates in this evangelistic enterprise. Some entire communities will reject Jesus’ followers (10:11–14). In later years, although their witness will reach to the highest levels of government, those very governments will sometimes impose harsh sanctions (10:17–19). The priorities of the Gospel will split families so severely that some family members will betray other family members (10:21, 35). At its worst, persecution will hound Christian witnesses from one center to another (10:22–23). In some instances this persecution will end in martyrdom (10:28).

Anyone with the slightest familiarity with history knows how frequently and chillingly these prophecies have been fulfilled. The fact that many in the West have for so long been largely exempt from the worst features of such persecution has let us lower our guard—even Christians may think that a hassle-free life is something that society owes us. But as the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West weakens, we may one day be caught up in realities that missions specialists know but that the rest of us sometimes ignore: the last century and a half have seen more converts, and more martyrs, than the first eighteen centuries combined.

What will stabilize us in such times? This chapter mentions several precious supports: the recognition that Jesus our Master was hated before us (10:24–25); assurance that in the end justice will be done and will be seen to be done (10:26–27); recognition that a proper fear of God reduces fear of human beings (10:28); quiet confidence in the sovereignty of God, even in these circumstances (10:29–31); encouraging recognition that those who do receive us receive Christ, and therefore receive God (10:40); Christ’s own promise that the rewards of eternity cannot fail (10:41–42).

In any case, a fundamental principle is at stake: This is the way Christians view things; indeed, it is bound up with being a Christian. “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (10:38–39).[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 9 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

Genesis 9–10; Matthew 9; Ezra 9; Acts 9

 

it may be difficult for some christians, immersed in the heritage of individualism and influenced by postmodern relativism, to find much sympathy for Ezra and his prayer (Ezra 9). A hundred or so of the returned Israelites, out of a population that by this time would have been at least fifty or sixty thousand, have married pagan women from the surrounding tribes. Ezra treats this as an unmitigated disaster and weeps before the Lord as if really grievous harm has been done. Has religion descended to the level where it tells its adherents whom they may marry? Moreover, the aftermath of this prayer (on which we shall reflect tomorrow) is pretty heartless, isn’t it?

In reality, Ezra’s prayer discloses a man who has thought long and hard about Israel’s history.

First, he understands what brought about the exile, the formal destruction of the nation, the scattering of the people. It was nothing other than the sins of the people—and terribly often these sins had been fostered by links, not least marital links, between the people of the covenant and the surrounding tribes. “Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today” (9:7).

Second, he understands that if this community has been permitted to return to Judah, it is because “for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage” (9:8).

Third, he understands that in the light of the first two points, and in the light of Scripture’s explicit prohibition against intermarriage, what has taken place is not only singular ingratitude but concrete defiance of the God who has come to Israel’s relief not only in the Exodus but also in the exile.

Fourth, he understands the complex, corrosive, corporate nature of sin. Like Isaiah before him (Isa. 6:5), Ezra aligns himself with the people in their sin (9:6). He grasps the stubborn fact that these are not individual failures and nothing more; these are means by which raw paganism, and finally the relativizing of Almighty God, are smuggled into the entire community through the back door. How could such marriages, even among some priests, have been arranged unless many, many others had given their approval, or at least winked at the exercise? Above all, Ezra understands that the sins of the people of God are far worse than the punishment they have received (9:13–15).

How should these lines of thought shape our thinking about the sins of the people of God today?[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 9 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 9–10; Matthew 9; Ezra 9; Acts 9

 

despite the comprehensiveness of the punishment it meted out, the Flood did not change human nature. God well knows that murder, first committed by Cain, will happen again. Now he prescribes capital punishment (Gen. 9:6), not as a deterrent—deterrence is not discussed—but as a signal that murder is in a class by itself, in that it kills a being made in the image of God. But there are other signs that sin continues. The promise God makes, sealed by the rainbow, not to destroy the race in this fashion again (9:12–17), is relevant not because the race has somehow been shocked into compliance, but precisely because God recognizes that the same degradation will occur again and again. And Noah himself, who with reference to his pre-Flood days can rightly be called a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), is now depicted as a drunk, with family relationships already breaking down.

But there is another parallel between these chapters of Genesis and what took place before the Flood. Before the Flood, despite the grip of sin, there are individuals like Abel, whose sacrifice pleases God (Gen. 4); there are people who recognize their great need of God, and call upon the name of the Lord (4:26); there is Enoch, the seventh from Adam, who walked with God (5:22). In other words, there is a race within the race, a smaller race, not intrinsically superior to the other, but so relating to the living God that it heads in a quite different direction. Writing at the beginning of the fifth century a.d., Augustine of Hippo in North Africa traces back to these earliest chapters the beginning of two humanities, two cities—the city of God and the city of man. (See also the meditation for December 27.) That contrast develops and grows in various ways throughout the Bible, until the book of Revelation contrasts “Babylon” and the “new Jerusalem.” Empirically, believers find they are citizens of both; in terms of allegiance, they belong to one or the other.

The same distinctions re-form after the Flood. The race soon demonstrates that the problems of rebellion and sin are deep-seated; they constitute part of our nature. Yet distinctions also begin to appear. While this covenant that God makes not to destroy the earth the same way again is between God and all living things (9:16), Noah’s sons divide, much as Adam’s had. The wearisome cycle begins again, but it is not without hope: the city of God never falls into utter abeyance, but anticipates the more explicit covenantal distinctions to come, now just around the corner, and the glorious climax to come at the end of redemptive history.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

January 8 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

Genesis 8; Matthew 8; Ezra 8; Acts 8

 

why does jesus find the faith of the centurion so astonishing (Matt. 8:5–13)? The centurion assures Jesus that as far as he is concerned it is unnecessary for the Master to visit his home in order to heal the paralyzed servant. He understands that Jesus need only say the word, and the servant will be healed. “For,” the centurion explains, “I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (8:9). Why is this such an astonishing evidence of faith?

Three factors stand out. The first is that in an age of not a little superstition, the centurion believed that Jesus’ healing power did not lie in hocus-pocus, or even in his personal presence, but in his word. It was not necessary for Jesus to touch or handle the servant, or even be present; he needed only to say the word, and it would be done.

The second is that he came to such confident assertions despite the fact that he was not steeped in Scripture. He was a Gentile. What grasp of Scripture he had we cannot say, but it was certainly less than that enjoyed by many of the learned in Israel. Yet his faith was purer, simpler, more penetrating, more Christ-honoring than theirs.

The third astonishing element in this man’s faith is the analogy he draws. He recognizes that he himself is a man under authority, and therefore he has authority when he speaks in the context of that relationship. When he tells a Roman soldier under him to come or go or do something, he is not speaking merely as one man to another man. The centurion speaks with the authority of his senior officer, the tribune, who in turn speaks, finally, with the authority of Caesar, with the authority of the mighty Roman Empire. That authority belongs to the centurion, not because he is in fact as powerful as Caesar in every dimension, but because he is a man under authority: the chain of command means that when the centurion speaks to the foot soldier, Rome speaks. Implicitly, the centurion is saying that he recognizes in Jesus an analogous relationship: Jesus so stands in relationship to God, and under God’s authority, that when Jesus speaks, God speaks. The centurion, of course, was not speaking within the framework of a mature Christian doctrine of Christ, but the eyes of faith had enabled him to penetrate very far indeed.

This is the faith we need. It trusts Jesus’ word, reflects a simple profundity, and believes that when Jesus speaks, God speaks.[1]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.